Sacred India

Perhaps you have to be born a Hindu to understand Hinduism, a religion as complex as the country it calls home.  Indeed, if you are not born a Hindu, you cannot convert to Hinduism.

The many gods and goddesses in Hindu religion appear is many forms, and a profusion of stories exists to explain them.  Even with their divine nature, Hindu gods and goddesses retain many human qualities.

For Hindus, religion is inseparably intertwined with daily life.  Deities are prayed to on a daily basis, consulted and asked for assistance in every corner of life, from family, children, and love to financial success and daily chores.  One does not have to make their way to a temple to pay homage to a god or goddess, for the divine exists in everything -- every tree, every stone, every living being.  This is one reason why Hindus are so hospitable to strangers, for every stranger carries something divine within them.   After meeting you for the first time, a Hindu will often invite you into their home for dinner and to have a place to sleep if you need one, and in so doing, show their respect for the divine in you.  "Namaste", the standard Hindu greeting, means "I bow to you" and "I recognize the divine in you".

The holy trinity of Hinduism is Brahma, the creator; Vishnu, the sustainer; and Shiva, the destroyer.  Mahadevi, or Devi, is the Great Goddess, whose body is India and who manifests in bright and dark forms.  Roger Housden writes in his excellent book on spiritual India, Travels Through Sacred India,

"The Goddess in any form, light or dark, represents power, shakti.  The gods need their consorts in order to act, since by themselves, they are prior to all manifestation, the still point at the centre."

In her bright forms, the Goddess is often the consort of one of the gods, the image of the devoted and obedient wife in a patriarchal society.  As Saraswati, the goddess of wisdom and learning, she is the consort of Brahma.  As Lakshmi, the goddess of wealth and good fortune, she is the consort of Vishnu.  As Parvati, she is the consort of Shiva.

From these holy unions come more deities, such as Ganesh.  The son of Shiva and Parvati, Ganesh is shown (as in the background of this page) as having a human body and the head of an elephant.  There are many tales to describe how he came to have an elephant head.  In one story, Shiva set off travelling when Ganesh was young and went away for many years.  When he returned, he found Parvati talking to an adult Ganesh, and assuming Ganesh was a stranger there to woo his wife, he chopped off his own son's head.  Parvati was so upset that in order to placate her, Shiva said he would replace Ganesh's head with that of the first living being he came upon.  This happened to be an elephant, and so now Ganesh is portrayed in stone, in painting and in story as having the head of an elephant.

The dark forms of the Goddess, such as Durga and Kali, are fiercely independent, very different from their bright counterparts.  The Gods and Goddesses handed Durga their weapons so she could protect them from evil.  She is represented with many arms, each bearing a different weapon.

Kali is the Goddess of [many things, among them] Chaos, [; she is].  Feared and respected, she wears a garland of skulls and demands sacrifices.